Book Review: The Big Over Easy

The Big Over Easy is the first in Jasper Fforde’s Nursery Crime series. I previously reviewed The Eyre Affair, the first in Fforde’s Thursday Next series about a literary detective.

The Big Over Easy is a satirical detective novel based on nursery rhymes, fables, and other stories.

When Humpty Dumpty’s body is found by a wall, following a great fall, it is up to the work of Detective Inspector Jack Spratt and his assistant Sergeant Mary Mary to investigate what happened. Did he fall? Did he jump? Was he pushed?

Humpty Dumpty
I, of course, hate using GIFs. However, the friend who lent me The Big Over Easy loves them. This is for you, Sam.

Similar to The Eyre Affair, Fforde’s intertextual references to other works of fiction are brilliant and his writing is full of irony and satirical quips.

It took a little while for the narrative to progress, but once it did, I really liked the application of detective and crime genre conventions to something as trivial as a nursery rhyme story.

In particular, Fforde satirises the blend between crime fiction and crime reports; Spratt’s superiors encourage him to solve the mystery in a way that will create great publishing material. However, Spratt wants to be an honest detective and only deal with facts. This mocks how, especially in the Victorian period, crime fiction such as the beloved Sherlock Holmes stories, and real police reports could be published in the same magazine, meaning at times readers did not know which accounts were fictional, and which were fact.

I enjoyed following the investigation, as Spratt works how Humpty died, but I didn’t especially enjoy the “background” narrative as much – Jack’s daughter begins a flirtation with Prometheus, the legendary Titan said to have created mankind from clay, and Jack’s mother accidentally grows a beanstalk. For me, these aspects of the narrative felt a bit too ridiculous. Which was probably the point.

The novel didn’t end how I expected it to, which was a pleasant surprise. The “whodunnit” narrative kept me guessing throughout, and wasn’t as predictable as I thought it would be.

Personally however, I think Fforde could have made The Big Over Easy even darker; if he had retold the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme as a gritty, realistic, crime thriller, in the style of someone like Peter James, that would have been fantastic.

– Judith

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Themes in: The Sign of Four

The Sign of Four is a novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and is part of his famous Sherlock Holmes series, published in 1890. The Sign of Four has a plot which involves stolen treasure, a secret pact and the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

I remember reading The Sign of Four while I was trying to read the entire Sherlock Holmes series. I still haven’t managed it, and I didn’t particularly enjoy this one.

Masculinity

Sherlock Holmes is not a stereotypical Victorian gentleman man. He doesn’t work as a detective to support a family, or maintain social standing. He solves mysteries because they’re fun. He also frequently uses cocaine and opium during a time in which, although not illegal, recreational drug use was frowned upon by higher society. It’s clear Holmes does not mesh well with the stereotypical lifestyle expected of a stereotypical Victorian gentleman.

‘”Which is it to-day?” I asked, – “morphine, or cocaine?”‘

On the other hand, there’s Watson. He has good social standing as a doctor, disapproves of Holmes’ lifestyle somewhat, and even meets and courts Mary Morstan. In other words, Watson is more similar to the Victorian gentleman than Holmes. However, Watson is not entirely squeaky clean. He too is fascinated by mystery and disorder – joining Holmes on adventures together, so he can’t be overly aloof.

‘”It is cocaine,” he said, – “a seven-per-cent. solution. Would you care to try it?”‘

Otherness

This is probably my favourite theme to discuss from The Sign of Four. The novel was written during an era where the British Empire was still incredibly powerful; India did not achieve independence from the United Kingdom until 1947. With this in mind, both Watson and Holmes express problematic views regarding India, Indian characters, and convey the notion that white Europeans are ultimately superior.

Firstly, as the narrative is about the discovery of hidden treasure in India, this underlines ideas that India exists solely to be an exotic, unknown place for white colonisers to take from. Secondly, Indian characters such as Tonga are made “other”. To be made “other” in Victorian England means they are represented in a way which deliberately makes them different from, and therefore inferior to, white British characters.

For example, Holmes describes inhabitants from the Andaman Islands – which is located in the Bay of Bengal – and is Tonga’s home, as ‘fierce’, ‘morose’, ‘naturally hideous’, and associated with cannibalism, massacres, and violence. Watson also describes Tonga with abhuman language such as ‘it straightened itself into a little black man’. The use of the pronoun ‘it’ emphasises how Watson refused to acknowledge Tonga as a person or identity, simply because of their ethnicity. This language is indicative of the time in which Conan Doyle was writing, but creates the horrid stereotype that anyone “other” to the “norm” of white British men are violent, cruel, abhuman and animalistic.

Perhaps that’s why I didn’t like the book.

– Judith

Book Review: Lady Audley’s Secret

Lady Audley’s Secret is a Victorian sensation novel by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. It is about Lady Audley, a beautiful lady residing with her wealthy husband at Audley Court. In addition to her material wealth, Lady Audley also has a wealth of secrets. She challenges the notion of stereotypical femininity, and her brother-in-law, Robert Audley, gradually begins to suspect all is not right at Audley Court.

Reader, I liked it.

As a late Victorian novel, the language is not too dissimilar to modern language and so was fairly easy to read.

There were plenty of plot twists that prompted me to work out various marriage connections and secret identities. However, some of the bigger secrets became apparent rather early on – perhaps this was intentional – but it made me dually satisfied to see Robert Audley discover clues and exasperated he didn’t realise sooner what was obviously going on.

Lady Audley’s Secret foregrounds the Victorian pragmatism of marriage. Throughout the novel, male characters encouraged women to choose a marriage partner they deeply loved – as if it were that simple. Given the Victorian restrictions on a woman’s independence and finance, they relied on good husband for security, which is exactly what Lady Audley did.

However, though I really liked Lady Audley’s cunning and atrocious schemes, by marrying well, she becomes protected by her position and the manipulative hold she has over her older, richer (and oblivious) husband.

This reflects how the upper-classes could avoid punishment – or even any ‘disgrace’ – if they had sufficient status and wealth, whereas the lower-classes would be imprisoned immediately. In turn, this suggests money and status make you above or outside the law, – something still wholly relevant today.

Spoiler Warning: I try to keep my reviews mostly spoiler-free. From here on in, this is an exception. Sorry.

Despite my enjoyment of the villainous actions and maliciousness of Lady Audley, she is  eventually robbed of her agency.

 ‘George Talboys had been cruelly and treacherously murdered’

As it happens, Lady Audley hadn’t actually murdered George Talboys, contradicting her characterisation as a scheming, dangerous woman. Plus, the involvement of lower class characters within this plotting then reinforces the stereotype that the lower-classes are the true criminals after all.*

* I made a similar point discussing this with Sherlock Holmes last year.

To me, the ending was also wrong. Most characters received a conventional “happy ending”. Fair enough, though it seems contrite within the context of all the shocking sensationalism prior. Lady Audley however, dies naturally in a ‘madhouse’ in Belgium. There’s no trial, no exposure, and no punishment – except arguably the loss of her position. Everything is kept secret or attributed to Lady Audley’s supposed ‘madness’.

I don’t believe Lady Audley was in any way mad; I think she was a rational, cold-hearted woman who used despicable crimes to better her status. Yet of course, these facts are ignored because of that key word: woman.

‘To call them the weaker sex is to utter a hideous mockery. They are the stronger sex, the noisier, the more persevering, the most self-assertive sex.’

Given the rigidity of Victorian stereotypes, no one thought a woman could be capable of anything more dangerous than cross-stitching.  This is partly what takes Robert Audley so long in his investigation; he can’t (or doesn’t want to) face the prospect that is sister-in-law could be capable of such deeds. But then again, given she doesn’t actually murder George Talboys, perhaps Lady Audley isn’t capable after all, and thus the Victorian stereotypes are reinforced.

Some others may die at her hands. But enough spoilers.

If I haven’t completely ruined the book for you, then you should read Lady Audley’s Secret.

– Judith